Despite showing opposition to American sanctions on the Russian energy sector and being fined $2 million by the US Department of Treasury in July 2017 for its involvement with Rosneft, ExxonMobil had to withdraw from 9 of its 10 joint ventures with Rosneft.
Recently, the American oil giant announced it was withdrawing from its last joint venture with its Russian partner. The two companies’ joint exploration activities in the Kara Sea led to the discovery of the promising Pobeda field containing 952 million technically recoverable barrels of oil and 499 billion cubic meters of gas according to an early assessment.
Soon after the discovery, the US Department of Treasury imposed sanctions prohibiting “the exportation of goods, services or technology in support of exploration or production for Russian deepwater, Arctic offshore, or shale projects […] to five Russian energy companies – including Rosneft – involved in these types of projects.” Without technological support and expertise from its American partner, Rosneft was not able to pursue exploration alone. Furthermore, falling oil prices have deterred potential partners from investing in costly offshore drilling, and thus made it even more difficult for Rosneft to replace ExxonMobil.
Despite all this, Russia’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Serguei Donskoy, does not seem too concerned about finding new partners to develop Russia’s Arctic shale. Following ExxonMobil’s withdrawal from the Pobeda field, Sergey Donskoy appeared confident and declared that Russia was not giving up on its Arctic shale projects and that there were other companies ready to work on the Russian Arctic shale. But how many real potential replacements are there for Rosneft?
The Asia dragon lured by new access to resources
Indeed, another ambitious player has recently shown a growing interest in the Russian Arctic. Arctic resources caught China’s attention as the emerging power plans to open a Polar Silk Road as part of the wider Silk Road and Belt. The Asian dragon has already invested $14.23 billion in the JSC Yamal LNG joint venture with Russian gas producer Novatek, and in September 2017 the private Chinese conglomerate CEFC (Clean Energy Finance Corporation) agreed to buy a 14.16 percent stake in Rosneft from the Swiss Glencore and Qatar’s sovereign fund. Sensing that the wind of change is blowing, Rosneft was particularly pleased that a Chinese company signed the deal. According to Bloomberg, after signing a series of agreements last summer, Rosneft and CEFC “were also looking at developing joint exploration and production projects in Siberia.”
Other players that have not been deterred by US sanctions could potentially replace ExxonMobil in the Russian Arctic. Following US sanctions, at every Saint Petersburg Economic Forum, British Petroleum (BP) has signed agreements with Rosneft for joint exploration and drilling in Siberia, including the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug and the Krasnoyarsk Krai bordering the Kara Sea. BP represents a first-choice potential partner for Rosneft.
The company has a solid Arctic track record. Its presence in the region dates back to 1969 when it started exploring Alaska. With over 20 years of exploration drilling in regions with extreme weather conditions, BP has precious technology and expertise to offer to Rosneft.
The Russian giant may not even find it difficult to convince BP to invest in a joint venture. BP has a long privileged partnership with Russian oil and gas companies. It has been operating in Russia within the framework of joint ventures since 1990 and its Russian activities now represent over 20 percent of its worldwide oil and gas production.
US sanctions have also failed to scare Royal Dutch Shell which kept its share in the Sakhalin-II joint venture. The Anglo-Dutch company has shown interest for the Arctic and conducted exploration activities in the region until 2015 but failed to find enough oil to make the project cost-effective. With Rosneft things would be different. The Pobeda field has significant proved reserves and could hold even more.
However, unlike BP, Shell has gained a poor reputation in Arctic drilling since its 30-year-old Kulluk rig ran aground in Alaska during a storm in 2012. Since then its capacity to safely operate in the Arctic has been highly criticized, making it a second-choice partner for Rosneft.
Amongst European companies that are not afraid to annoy Washington and circumvent its sanctions is the energy company Total. In 2017, the French giant bought 20 percent stakes in the JSC Yamal LNG joint venture with Novatek and China National Petroleum Corporation.
The only catch is that Total was the first oil and gas company to oppose Arctic drilling and even proposed a ban on Arctic oil and gas exploration. If it does not seem to fear the American whip for getting involved in Russian oil and gas joint ventures, after showing such a strong opposition to Arctic drilling, it will most likely stick to its principles and refuse to take part in the exploration of the Northernmost well.
Actual losses for ExxonMobil
On top of losses amounting to $1 billion, the American oil and gas giant will have to pay a $200 million after-tax charge as a consequence of its withdrawal from the Russian Arctic joint venture. This can be considered spare change for the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company which earned $19.7 billion in revenues in 2017.
Anyway, the company is too busy discovering promising offshore oil fields elsewhere in the world to mourn its Russian losses. Since 2017, ExxonMobil has confirmed the discovery of 7 offshore oil fields near Guyana totalling an estimated 3.2 billion recoverable barrels of oil, 3.5 times more than in the Pobeda field.
Diane Pallardy studied an MA in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and MA in World Politics and Fossil Energy at the Higher School of Economics, in Moscow.